Editor's note: “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives” is a finalist in the Short Story category of the 2021 High Plains Book Awards.
About every tenth book I read discourages me from even trying to write, simply because they are that good. Leona Theis’ short story collection, “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives,” rises to this level. Yet I must write about this short story collection to encourage you to seek it. Also, I need to thank the Canadian community for deeply nurturing its writers, as anyone associated with the High Plains BookFest and Book Awards the past decade will agree.
The stories proceed chronologically within Sylvie’s life, but there the simplicity stops. After writer Theis thoroughly enchants readers with Sylvie’s charm and humanity, we learn again and again that she’s a petty thief and chronic adulterer. Don’t dismiss her, though. She feels and reacts to whatever environment she’s in, living fully in the moment. It’s a tough pill for those who follow the rules consistently. Maybe Sylvie finds joy and learns more than bean-pusher “yes” types, I pondered about halfway through this fascinating collection. However, Theis keeps moving the range of possibilities forward, as readers witness Sylvie’s profound ruts, surges, and catastrophes.
What I appreciate so much is Theis’ simultaneous yet realistic contradictions: “The skin at the back of her neck pulled itself tight. She shuddered. Revulsion, chased by a fleeting twinge of arousal.” Each character suffers from the weight of sensitivity and memory, over and over – “Neither she nor Sylvie mentioned the incident with the cat again, which didn’t mean it was forgotten.” If only we were different, but we’re not. Reading about Sylvie makes my struggles a tad easier to bear, or at least to laugh about.
Of course, a reader could systematically unpack why she is the way she is, plus clarify various roles other characters play to feed Sylvie’s drama. I’m not sure that path matters. The characters keep oscillating through the tragedies and pleasures of life. We’re lucky to be in the same room. Do they learn or do we, and, if so, what? Or is the sport of life itself the message? Read this book.
Bess Lovec, a retired English teacher, enjoys teaching yoga and fitness classes around Billings, plus volunteering at YAM (Yellowstone Art Museum).